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Handing power to fishers could lead to more sustainable fishing

Fishing boats sit in port against a mountain backdrop
Fishing boats in Henninsgsvær, Lofoten Islands, Norway. Paul Hart, Author provided (no reuse)

Cornish pilchard fishers are under constant pressure to make a catch and earn money. They use great skill aided by electronic fish-finding equipment to find and capture their prey. But if they are unsuccessful, it’s hard for them to cover the costs of the fishing trip or even pay wages to the crew.

Early measures to manage fisheries in the north-east Atlantic were first introduced after the second world war. These measures were largely drawn up by research laboratories set up at the end of the 19th century to investigate the biology of exploited species. They were then enforced separately by government agencies throughout Europe and imposed on fishers.

Since then, attempts have been made to involve fishers through a process called co-management. As I describe in my new paper, fishers are still seen as the junior partners in this process and don’t have ultimate responsibility for the policies that affect their activities. Because of this, they are the target of regulations but don’t have the power or the agency to alter them to fit the circumstances of their work.

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This situation can cause resentment and drive some fishers towards circumventing regulations, particularly when working life is so precarious.

One example of this is the conflicting message that was inherent in the old EU policy for discarding fish. If a trawler caught fish for which it had no quota, it was required to throw the fish back. As the fish would be dead or dying, throwing these fish back in didn’t contribute to the conservation of these stocks. Instead, it tempted the fisher to keep the fish and sell them illegally.

The solution to this type of problem is to make fishers responsible for sustainably managing the resource they are exploiting.

How to improve sustainability

An example of how this can work is the Inshore Potting Agreement used in crab fishery in south Devon, UK. The agreement was established in the 1970s to keep apart the crabbers using pots sitting on the seabed and others using towed gear, which can destroy the static pots.

Crab baskets on a beach in Devon, UK.
Crab baskets on a beach in Devon, UK. Peter Elvidge/Shutterstock

In its early years, the system was voluntary and was made to work by personal interaction between parties. It is now covered by legal regulation. This proposal of fishers managing their own fisheries may sound like giving the poacher the gamekeeper’s job, but it comes with conditions that would make it more likely that the fishers would do a good job.

First, the fishers would own the management system. Studies by behavioural economists have shown that owning a task engenders greater belief in it. And this is something that can be applied to fisheries with the aim of better management and sustainability in the sector.

Second, the proposal is built on the idea that a stock assessment and management system controlled by fishers creates a public good. This is mainly because only fishers belonging to the self-managing group would be allowed to fish. A characteristic of a public good is that it cannot be monopolised by anyone or any institution, and the benefits are available to all. A good example of this is when policies are put in place that ensures access to clean air.

There may be a temptation in this kind of system, however, to benefit from a public good without contributing to its maintenance – in other words, free-riding.

Under the self-management regime, any fisher who doesn’t contribute and doesn’t comply with the regulations it produces would be punished by their fellow fishers. This could take the form of fines for early transgressions. Ultimately, it could mean exclusion from the fishery either for a fixed period or for good. Given that a fisher has no income if they are not fishing, then exclusion would be a severe punishment.

Incorporating data

To involve everyone, each fisher would need to collect data and transmit it to a central unit run by the fishery to collate and analyse. Collecting data by fishers is already happening and one of the best examples is given by the Norwegian Reference Fleet. There is one reference fleet for large vessels and one for the smaller inshore vessels. Equipped with measuring instruments, these vessels collect data on their catch and transmit it directly to the Institute for Marine Research which then uses the data in their national stock assessments.

Collecting data is the easy part. The fishers would also need to have access to scientists who could process the data, assess the state of stocks and devise the best management policy. For small-scale fishers, this might be a problem. One solution would be to impose a levy on all boats, which could then be used to fund a central unit employing scientists and policymakers.

One promising fishery that would benefit from the application of this kind of fisher-managed system would be the Scottish fleet of trawlers catching herring, mackerel and blue whiting in the north-east Atlantic. These vessels are catching a small group of species and using mainly one type of gear.

The organisation in the UK representing these vessels, the Scottish Pelagic Fisherman’s Association, already employs a full-time scientist. This person carries out research on the vessels and advises the fishers on national and international regulations. The fishery would be an excellent candidate to explore how handing management directly into the hands of the fishers would work.

My proposal would undoubtedly require a major upheaval for the institutions involved in fisheries management. As Richard Thaler, one of the founders of behavioural economics, wrote: “It is difficult to change people’s minds about what they eat for breakfast, let alone problems they have worked on all their lives.” But as my paper suggests, results from behavioural economics can be used to design better management systems for fisheries. These are more likely to be successful than systems that are imposed on fishers without any consideration of how people will behave in response to a regulation.

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